Scientists Stalk Cemeteries For Signs Of Wildlife Climate change has researchers looking for what they call "hidden habitats," where they can gather critical data on some of America's most endangered native plants and insects. One good place to look: graveyards.
NPR logo

Scientists Stalk Cemeteries For Signs Of Wildlife

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Scientists Stalk Cemeteries For Signs Of Wildlife

Scientists Stalk Cemeteries For Signs Of Wildlife

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

C: As St. Louis Public Radio's Adam Allington reports, graveyards can provide data to help study issues like climate change and species diversity.

ADAM ALLINGTON: When Lewis and Clark left St. Louis to explore the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, their journals describe the sight of wave upon wave of rolling prairie grass. One species in particular, called big blue stem, reached well above their heads and stretched as far as the eye could see.

ERIN SHANK: It's a big grass that can grow 6 feet easily. And you would have seen it all the way from the Great Plains even into western Ohio, from Manitoba down to Texas.

ALLINGTON: Erin Shank is an urban wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. We're walking through Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis, not far from the graves of famous locals like Dred Scott and Tennessee Williams. The tombstones eventually give way to tall golden stalks of dried grass.

SHANK: Essentially, the archdiocese of St. Louis just hasn't gotten around to burying anybody here, so this has been pretty untouched.

ALLINGTON: These 13 acres, preserved by chance over 150 years ago, represent the last patch of native tall grass prairie in the St. Louis region. Shank says habitat remnants, like cemeteries, are becoming increasingly critical as sources of native plants and seeds.

SHANK: The future of conservation is in fragments, unfortunately. And we're working with private landowners and public land to try to best manage what we have left, down to small pieces that we just happen to be lucky, honestly, through history to still have intact.

ALLINGTON: Despite cases like the Calvary prairie, many conservationists regard cemeteries as little more than sacred lawns, without the same benefits as wild habitat. But in the Midwest, where agriculture has spread to nearly every corner, finding those natural areas is a challenge.

LAURA BURKLE: We spend a lot of time driving around, looking for these remnant forested areas and there are not a lot of them left. It's really, really rare.

ALLINGTON: Burkle points to a patch of bluebells and small white lilies. Just then, she notices a low-flying bumblebee and charges with her insect net.


BURKLE: I got him.

KNIGHT: Do you need a vial?

BURKLE: I got a vial. I think it's a queen. She's not psyched about being in here. All we want to do right now is identify her, and then we'll let her go.

ALLINGTON: Tiffany Knight says the big question they're trying to answer is whether the critical relationship between plants and bees is getting thrown off.

KNIGHT: One of the things that we know is happening with climate change is that plants and pollinators are active earlier because it's warmer. The problem is that they might go out of sync - meaning the pollinators might be active earlier than the plants are flowering.

ALLINGTON: For NPR News, I'm Adam Allington in St. Louis.


: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.